After launching myself across the internet last week with a flurry of posts that were more about saying something rather than saying nothing, I thought it might be useful to introduce myself properly to the world at large.
Hi. I’m Jonathan.
I’m a software developer, and I used to work in an office. I wear lots of other hats too, but if I start droning on about systems integration, business process automation, and records management, people tend to glaze over almost instantaneously. Let’s just say that I used to sit at a desk, in front of a laptop, and sometimes travel around Europe on planes and trains to stand in front of rooms full of people and empty my head into theirs. That all stopped about eight months ago when COVID19 swept the world — and I’ve found myself sitting in the spare room at home ever since. I obviously don’t sit in here all the time — my family let me out for meals, to fill the washing machine, and to do the washing up — but by and large I sit here for about eight hours every day.
A typical day in my invented kingdom is markedly different than it once was.
Instead of cycling across town each morning, doing battle with commuter traffic, I try to scrape myself out of bed at least twice a week and go for a run around town. This running business started a year ago when my other half signed my eldest daughter up for the “Couch to 5K” programme. This meant signing me up too, for reasons I’m still not altogether clear about. It’s worth noting that most of my life unfolds in this way — I stumble along, trying to stay out of too much trouble, and get swept up in damn fool escapades by well-meaning friends and relatives.
I run early in the morning because I listen to my body — which has quite firmly instructed me that if I try to run late at night again, it will do something nasty to me. After getting home, and posting my exploits to Strava — a mobile app designed to torture you with your own guilt and expectations — I jump in the shower, shave, and get dressed. There are several shirts in the wardrobe that have not been worn for months — regulation home working fatigues seem to have evolved into cargo trousers, and a t-shirt with something nerdy or mildly offensive printed on it.
At least I don’t have to comb my hair any more. About a month into the “working from home” adventure, I bought some clippers and became a throwback to the skinheads of the 1970s. Of course these days short hair is associated with hipsters, nerd glasses, and wristwatches more powerful than the Apollo navigation computer.
After making the first of many cups of coffee, I retreat from the mayhem of the rest of the house to the spare room and begin my day. Sometimes it takes a while to make that journey — given the scene of destruction that regularly results from two daughters leaving for school and college, and an other half who apparently attempts to yarn bomb the surrounding area during most evenings. I’m aware that I’m coming across as quite flippant — she’s actually very good at the whole yarn bombing thing — a ninja knitter, crocheter, and sewing bee — so good in fact that I sometimes worry that I’ll be replaced by a knitted version of myself.
The working day begins with a fearful launch of Microsoft Outlook, and Teams — grimacing at the notification icon that tells me how many messages have arrived overnight. I immediately delete any advertising or marketing messages, and pretend I’m the kind of Inbox Zero evangelist that Merlin Mann would have been proud fifteen years ago. The remaining messages typically tell me that something has gone wrong somewhere, or enquire if I have a couple of minutes to look at something. The couple of minutes looking at something is never a couple of minutes.
My working life switched almost silently from email messages and telephone calls to online chat rooms and conference calls earlier this year. Although I still have a work phone, it has not rung for at least eight months. Microsoft Teams arrived in our working lives, and while perhaps not as good as Slack, was “good enough”, and caused less disruption than considering anything else in a self-built integration and synchronisation hellscape. Perhaps Microsoft should change the tagline for all of their product marketing programmes to “it’s probably good enough”. Actually, that’s a bit unfair — Microsoft’s developer tools are the best in the business — bar none.
On Monday mornings my co-workers and I join a video conference call and share our weekend with each other. While on the surface this is worthy, inclusive, and all those other nice words, with everybody being in various levels of lock-down there are no stories to tell. Listening to a screen full of people repeat “didn’t really do much over the weekend — watched the TV, and one of our kids is self isolating” often has the opposite of it’s intended effect.
Most of my job involves either writing notes, writing documents, or writing code. The notes are written while listening to business people tell you their dreams. The notes then get turned into official-looking documents that tell the client what they told you — and finally turned into programming that conjures a computer-driven solution to a problem seemingly out of nowhere. The reception of the conjuring trick typically goes one of several ways — either the audience “ooh” and “aah” their way through the first all-up-demo, they remain absolutely silent, or they start to question a missing aspect of their work that was never communicated to anybody before. During difficult times I can’t help recalling a de-motivational poster I once saw about consultancy — “there’s good money to be made while being a part of the problem” (or words to that effect).
While working, I tend to keep track of what I’ve been doing in a paper bullet journal. I know this flies in the face of so many productivity enthusiasts — who would no doubt recommend any number of mobile applications or cloud platforms to “solve” the problem for me. I’m nothing if not inconsistent though — alongside the Bullet Journal I use Evernote to keep technical notes — bits of programming, ways of doing things. There’s a simple enough reason — you can’t search a Bullet Journal.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle I face each day is myself — or rather my own human nature. When an email or message arrives from a client or co-worker, I tend to drop what I’m doing immediately and go read it. It’s terrible — if I try to ignore the audible cue of an arriving message, it will slowly eat away at me. The longer-term problem this creates is that everybody presumes you will always respond to everything immediately. Even you expect yourself to respond immediately and become disappointed in yourself if you don’t or can’t. Back when the world was normal I remember sitting on trains or planes and reading an email just before loss of signal and counting the minutes until I could respond. It’s insane, I know it’s insane, and yet I still do it.
Working from home has some obvious downsides related to being alone. You can’t turn around in your chair and ask random questions about whatever you’re doing of those around you — sure, you can open a chat window, but it’s not quite the same. You also can’t make a coffee and wander around the building catching up with co-workers you haven’t seen for a while. While you might also argue that you’re interrupting them, it’s still nice to see a friendly face drop into the office and spend ten minutes reminding you that a world exists outside of the programming rabbit hole you have been waist-deep in for the last thirty-six hours.
The company I work for are working hard to normalise online conversation between the staff — to make opening a video chat window as natural as wandering around with a coffee. I suspect it will just take some time — it’s worth remembering that back in the Spring of this year many people were nervous about connecting their webcam to Zoom, Teams, or Google Meet — “is the room tidy?”, “is my hair ok?”, “have I shaved?”. Those concerns slowly dissipated as cameras and video screens became the new normal, but there’s still a fair amount of hoodoo wrapped up in it for some.
It’s difficult to get away from the fact that you’re often sitting alone for hours on end. I’m more fortunate than most because I live in a chaotic house with my other half and three teenage girls. There’s always drama unfolding somewhere — if not in the house, then via TikTok, Snapchat, or Instagram — and while I might shut the door on it throughout much of the day, it at least serves as a reminder that the world outside the door is still turning.
Bunker mentality seems to be a common trait among software developers. While wrestling with complex or sizeable problems, you tend to shut yourself off from everything around you and deep-dive. Being distracted during those times can be incredibly frustrating, but of course, the flip-side is that you can get to like the bunker too much. After a few days with only the objects, methods and properties of the code you have written for company, you begin to stress about the possibility of having to deal with people again. It’s very real, and very odd. Perhaps it’s just me. You might also think I would at least remember to eat and drink — and you would be wrong. I’ve lost count of the number of times — while writing code — that I’ve thought “why am I shaking” — and then realise the last meal I ate was almost 24 hours ago.
I suppose this brings me naturally to the most obvious solution to the various woes related to working from home. It really does pay to stop, and walk away from time to time. Go and make a coffee, check-in with your partner, find out what your child that’s self-isolating has done with their day so far, walk to the shop — do anything that doesn’t involve work for a few minutes. I know how difficult it is because I ignore my own advice.
There’s a voice on my shoulder that often whispers”but this piece of code is nearly working…”
Originally published at https://jonbeckett.com on December 7, 2020.